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Holi celebration

Holi: The Origins of the Colourful Spring Festival That Encourages Cannabis Consumption

Holi is an ancient festival known alternately as of spring, rebirth, colour, or love that originated in India. It has been in the historical record since at least the year 300, but likely originated as far back as 1500 BCE. This is far back enough that the exact origin, meaning, and practice will never be fully known. It has been layered over repeatedly and likely represents not a single festival or belief, but many over time, much like Roman Catholic festivals. Also like that religion, there is a dark underbelly that likely provides clues to how the religion became dominant, and what needed to be adapted or overcome for that to happen.

The History of Holi

Holi is celebrated predominantly in Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainsim, and some forms of Buddhism. It occurs based on the Hindu calendar coinciding with the full moon (typically mid to late March by western calendars), and lasts two to ten days. The events it celebrates vary from region to region, but are related to Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, and possibly the assimilation and subjugation of an Indigenous people.

The origin, or at least one of the earliest layers comes in the form of a historical myth. While the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland is generally accepted as an allegory for this Catholic missionary driving out the ancestral Druidic religion, Holi’s story may serve a similar function.

The Asur are one of the earliest groups of people to have inhabited India, and have faced persecution and subjugation for millennia. Under the caste system they were untouchables, and still today live in substandard, rural conditions, numbering less than 50,000. They believe that many Hindu myths describe the persecution and overthrow of their people, and that Holi is no exception.

Vishnu’s role in Holi brings the element of the triumph of good over evil. A king attempts to gain immortality, and upon believing he has achieved it, promotes the worship of himself as a god. His son refuses and remains devoted to Vishnu. In some versions the king’s sister Holika is evil, in others, she is not; in all versions, she is burned on a pyre.

This is typically the first event celebrated during Holi, with effigies of Holika burned on bonfires the night before. Vishnu appears later, and kills the king to protect the son. To the Asur, the king, his son, and his sister Holika were royal family, and they believe this myth is a direct celebration of their downfall.

The layer added by Krishna brings the element of love and colour, giving a vastly different interpretation of the festival. While despairing that his love for the fair-skinned Radha may not be returned due to his dark skin, his mother suggests approaching her and asking her to colour his face whatever colour she wishes. This is the most visually striking and unique aspect of Holi, where everyone is encouraged to colour everyone else with coloured powders or waters. This is a day where class or caste mean nothing, and all people outdoors are considered fair game.

Holi

Shiva’s role in Holi is likely among the oldest, and stems mainly from Shivaism and Shaktism. Shaktism tends to focus on the female deities in the Hindu pantheon, led by Shakti, the supreme deity. Shaivism celebrates Shiva as the supreme deity. Both traditions (along with the two other major denominations of Hinduism) revere the same gods and goddesses, basically differing only on hierarchy. 

Shiva has two similar myths to Vishnu, the first is similar to the one just related, but a female demon plays the role of the king. It will be his son that kills the demon.

The other provides a quite different explanation for the bonfire. Rather than burning a female (royal or demon), it is meant to symbolize the rebirth of Kama, a god Shiva had killed in anger,  and upon reflection decided to revive. From this myth the practice of making offerings to Kama during Holi also evolved.

The Link To Cannabis

Shiva is particularly relevant to tantric yoga, meditation, and is closely related to Ganges (Ganga), the river, goddess, and cannabis.

Cannabis is considered one of the five sacred herbs, capable of easing anxiety. In one legend, Shiva falls asleep under a cannabis plant, and wakes up hungry. He eats the cannabis, and it becomes his favourite food.

Other legends tie him to the goddess Ganga, personified by the river Ganges. Shiva traps Ganga in his dreadlocked hair, and the river is created. This is perhaps the holiest river in the whole world even today, and is seen as having the power to purify and cleanse the soul. She is also worshipped as Ganga Mata, the mother of the gods.

Bhang is often served at Holi
Photo via Flickr by Tom Maisey

In yet another legend, perhaps the most well-known, Shiva drinks bhang to recover after saving the world by swallowing the poison meant to destroy it. In another version, his own body produces cannabis to counter the poison.

Bhang is an edible made from cannabis since at least 1000 BCE. Bhang lassis and bhang thandai are drinks, and are two of the most popular preparations available. It is also mixed with ghee and sugar to create edibles such as halva, goli, and chutney.

These edibles have a long history in India, and are the reason the country has never fully criminalized cannabis. It is also the reason leaves and seeds were not initially included in the definition of cannabis during the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs in 1961. This treaty gave India 25 years to crack down on narcotic drugs, and when they did so in 1985, they excluded bhang.

Since the 1950s, some states in India have attempted to criminalize bhang, but these efforts proved largely unsuccessful. In 2017, the government clearly exempted bhang from prohibition. They also began looking into reintegrating medical and industrial uses of cannabis, and voted with the winning side to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention.

Despite all the legal wrangling, bhang lassis, thandai, halva, goli and even bhang pakoras have all continued to be used. This has been especially true in northern and central India, where one estimate suggests that 50 kilograms of bhang are consumed every day in different forms. The same estimate states that during Holi and other festivals such as Mahashivratri (a much more solemn festival dedicated to Shiva), this amount increases to 500 kilograms a day.

So whatever its roots, it survives today as a vibrant and joyous celebration of colour that has carried through cannabis use as a vital and central role. So much so that some locals say ‘without Bhang, Holi is colourless.’